Even when family members aren’t related biologically, they can still form close, loving bonds and live cooperative and fulfilling lives together. Here’s how to ease the transition to a new blended family structure, and build healthy, happy, and strong relationships with each other.
When many of us are asked to imagine what a typical family looks like, the ‘traditional’ view of a nuclear family unit consisting of “mum, dad, and kids” still persists. But the reality is that family structures are becoming much more diverse in Australia today, and it’s estimated that around one in five people are part of what’s known as a ‘blended family’ or step-family.
The unique challenges of blended families
Blended families can take on many forms, but will typically include a couple and their children from previous relationships, as well as children they may have had or adopted together.
If you’ve recently re-partnered or remarried, you’ll know first-hand that there are some key challenges for parents creating a blended family.
Children can often experience complex emotions relating to their place in the family, concerns over having new siblings, and changes to their relationships with their birth and step-parents. Children might also not get along with your new partner. It can take some time for children to warm up to a new parental figure and may experience fear, uncertainty, conflicted loyalty and anxiety.
Making the step-parenting process as smooth as possible
Whether you and your partner are both becoming step-parents to each others’ children, or only one partner is, it’s important to take things slowly when making changes in your children’s lives, such as introducing them to a new partner.
- Stability and routine are very important to a child’s wellbeing. Gradually integrate changes into their routines and wait until they are comfortable and secure with each step before moving on to the next
- Encourage respectful communication between all members of the family, even if they don’t yet get along
- Remember acting out can be a sign that your child is experiencing difficult emotions. You may need to enlist additional support from a counsellor other trusted person to help your child make sense of their feelings or hostility and learn to process them in healthy ways
- Have patience — close bonds are built over time.
Spending quality time with your own child
It’s important that while creating a strong family dynamic for your blended family, you still allow time to spend with your child one-on-one.
- Pick an activity that your child enjoys doing in your time together
- Children respond well to consistency, so incorporate one-on-one time into the family’s routine. Go for a walk, take an outing to the park or play a game together once a week on an allocated day
- Make your time together as natural and comfortable as possible and encourage them to talk about any concerns or feelings they may have.
When children are feeling anxious about or resistant to new siblings
Children may be understandably upset or concerned that they now have to share a space or their belongings with new step-siblings. But it’s important to remember not to try and force children to like each other. Understand that it can take time for them to form bonds, particularly if there’s an age difference between them.
If you’re welcoming a new baby to the family, make your existing children aware they’re going to have a new sibling early on, and include them in your plans. Encourage them to take part in preparing for the new baby, maybe by helping to decorate the nursery. Listen to their feelings and concerns and create an environment for open communication.
Remember to also let your children’s teachers know about the changes that are happening in their home life. Teachers can help look out for changes in your children’s behaviour that may indicate they’re not coping, as well as provide an additional point of support should your child need someone to talk to.
Maintaining a strong relationship with your ex-partner
Successfully co-parenting after separation presents its own set of challenges. But it’s important to help your children maintain a positive relationship with their other parent. When blended families come into play, children may feel like their loyalties are being tested, or be fearful that their parent is being replaced.
Here are some strategies that can help:
- Plan and communicate with your child’s other parent before taking any concrete steps and outline what each of you are comfortable with in regards to your children’s interactions with your new partner.
- Consult with their other parent first before introducing your child to a new partner
- Don’t make your child keep secrets from their other parent and avoid speaking negatively about the other parent to your child
- Share happy memories you have with your child and their other parent, and encourage them to talk openly about their own positive past experiences
- For older children, encourage them to seek support for coping with any difficult emotions they may be feeling.
Becoming a strong team with your new partner
When you’re finding your feet as a new blended family, it can be tempting to spend so much time and energy on ensuring your children are ok, that you start to neglect the thing that brought you all together in the first place — your relationship with your new partner. But it’s important for the long term health and wellbeing of the family that your relationship is built on strong foundations.
- Spend some time together without your children to bond one on one, such as while they’re at school or spending time with their other parents
- Communicate openly with your partner about how you might be feeling, and the strains you may be experiencing around the integration of the family unit
- Have realistic expectations — it takes time to develop new relationships and for all family members to adjust to the changes in family structure
- Remain a team when it comes to raising your children together. Lay out boundaries and discuss expectations regarding your parenting styles and family dynamic, before you begin taking any action
Creating a stable and functional blended family can sometimes be difficult. But with a little patience, understanding, and solid communication, you can make the transition much smoother for everyone.
If you need some professional support with successfully building a strong blended family, Relationships Australia NSW’s counselling services can help. We also offer a range of online and face-to-face group workshops, including Parenting After Separation, to help you transition to the co-parenting process more easily. Enquire today for more information.